Key Takeaways from the 2023 Virtual Enrollment & Marketing Summit
Enrollment Insights Blog

Key Takeaways from the 2023 Virtual Enrollment & Marketing Summit

In 2022, the K-12 Virtual Enrollment & Marketing Summit started with one big idea: we wanted to create a virtual event where school marketing, communications, and enrollment professionals could come together across the industry for a day of learning—for free. No matter what type of school you worked for or how big (or small) your budget was, this event was for you.

And after making the switch from working at an independent school to working for a company that serves schools of every kind, I’ve come to believe that there are many things that private, independent, charter, and public schools can learn from each other. You’re more alike than you think!

For 2023, we leveled up, bringing in a slate of experts from both sides of the desk to share their insights, tips, and best practices for everything from managing family expectations around DEI work to journey modeling, social media, and messaging. 

It would be impossible to effectively summarize this inspiring day (check out the recordings for that deep dive!), but here are some of the biggest takeaways. 

There will always be a “Newer Normal.”

In his session “The “New Normal” of School Search,” Niche Principal Strategist Ryan Bell discussed how parents search for and evaluate schools in the wake of the significant changes in education that have taken place since the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. 

Schools and districts have wrestled with the lingering impact of learning loss, staffing and budget challenges, and changes in the ways that they have to market to families. Parents and caregivers have been faced with the stress of pandemic parenting and the long-term effects of remote learning and they’re exercising school choice more than ever. 

Ryan highlighted the changes in where consumers are spending time online, behavioral changes in parent search, and nationwide enrollment changes during the past several years, but emphasized the importance of schools understanding their unique markets. What’s happening in Seattle is different from what’s happening in Raleigh. 

The biggest takeaways here are that schools and districts need to meet parents where they are in the school search and comparison process, understand market dynamics that impact enrollment, and recognize that there will always be a “newer normal.” 

The digital marketing space is constantly changing (more on that next), we still don’t know how Artificial Intelligence (AI) will impact how families discover schools or how we engage with them, and a national movement around vouchers can have a far-reaching impact. The schools and districts that are paying attention and proactively responding will come out on top.

Your school’s commitment to diversity shouldn’t be a surprise, but keep it real.

In “No Surprises: Using DEI Messaging to Enroll Right-Fit Families,” The Browning School’s Jan Abernathy, Janet Lien, and Kelly West led a powerful discussion about the importance of managing families’ expectations around a school’s commitment to DEI, from the earliest stages of engagement. Diversity, equity, and inclusion work can’t be done halfway. If your school is deeply committed to that work, that means it’s critically important to make sure you’re recruiting students and families who will walk along that path with you.

At Browning, the school’s commitment to DEI is infused into every stage of the admissions process, beginning with a parent statement on a common form used by schools that are members of The Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY). This is the first signal to families that diversity is something that the school takes very seriously. 

Inclusion statement

From there, the school’s philosophy and approach are very clear, but this kind of boldness is only effective when 1) it’s authentic and 2) at an institutional level, you’re willing to accept some degree of risk with taking this approach. Many independent and private schools struggle to accept (and convey) that they aren’t for everyone, and this kind of approach means drawing a clear line in the proverbial sand about who you are, and who would be the best fit for your community. 

I’m a huge advocate for this king clarity because it’s a fundamental component to recruiting and retaining the types of students and families who will truly feel at home in your community, but you have to be honest—whether it’s messaging around diversity and belonging, programmatic innovation, academic challenge or something else, if it isn’t true, your new families will figure that out pretty quickly.

Academic excellence is not a value proposition.

No, you’re not crazy. This was the title for one of our sessions, led by Elevate Marketing Strategy’s Laurie Ehrlich. If we’re talking about managing expectations, we gotta talk about the brand, which is something we’re…not great at in education. And this title sums it up pretty well.

In covering value propositions specifically, Laurie explained what they are (statements that describe how you solve a specific problem, tell families why they should enroll in your school, succinct and easy to understand) and what they are not (tag lines, mission statements, small class sizes, you get the idea.)

Chelsea Janke and Kelly May from CEL Marketing PR Design made the great point that a “magnetic” brand is “Less about me, more about WE” which is a simple flip of the frame that could take schools and districts a long way in their messaging to families. 

The impact of the Admission-Marcom Partnership can’t be overstated.

Two Summit sessions were co-presented by admission and marcom professionals: “No Surprises: Using DEI Messaging to Enroll Right-Fit Families” with The Browning’s School and “Know Your Audience: Getting Your School Message Through to Gen Z” with The Bryn Mawr School

Both presentations were filled with stunning examples of what’s possible when siloes break down and admission and communications offices work together. From training faculty on branding and ensuring consistent messaging for tours and ambassador events to creating a magazine for prospective students (🤯), there is a lot of inspiration for high-functioning teams to collaborate. And if you work for a school with distinct communications and admissions functions that aren’t working closely together, you’re running the risk of falling behind schools that do.

Bloom magazine covers

Investing in digital marketing is a must, but be ready for constant change.

While Ryan Bell described broader changes in parent search, in “Winning and Retaining Students with Data-Driven Marketing Strategies,” Digital Sales Leader Cooper Obenreder and Senior Digital Marketing Manager Meghan Tracy zeroed in on the current digital marketing environment, how schools can track ROI, and the digital marketing services provided by Niche

Using recent Niche data on parent search behavior and enrollment and marketing trends for public and private K-12 schools, Cooper and Meghan shared that:

  • Digital advertising costs are increasing. You should adopt new channels based on your strategic priorities and master campaign setup, management, and tracking return on investment. 
  • Despite the noise about different channels, Facebook and Google Display advertising are still where it’s at— 36% of parents surveyed by Niche said that Facebook influenced their enrollment decisions and 93% of social media advertisers invest in that channel. Google’s Display Network reaches over 90% of global internet users and Google Search was the top channel for parents for discovering new schools to consider.
  • Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is coming! If you haven’t already made the switch from Universal Analytics (UA), time is running out—if you need support to make the change and get up to speed on how it differs from UA, ask for help now

Take the time to walk in a prospective family’s shoes.

Why the approaches were different—journey modeling versus secret shopping— Dan Wyar from Rhodes Branding and Nick LeRoy from SchoolMint both talked about the why and how of putting yourself in the shoes of a prospective parent or guardian. 

While businesses do this in some way or another pretty regularly, it’s also really important for schools to take time periodically to assess what your processes, marketing tactics, and family experiences are like by walking in the shoes of your parents and students so you can see, feel, and experience what they do. And this isn’t just on you, I would actually recommend this for people across your leadership team because they often make the Big Decisions but can also be the most removed from what the end user’s experience looks like.

For anyone who’s been part of a school or district community for more than a few months, your understanding of that student and parent experience gets stale. Make sure you’re taking time to review your “customer” journey and secret shop your own institutional processes. And if you don’t have the time, we know a few folks who can help!

Final Thoughts

Nothing fills my cup like sharing knowledge with my colleagues across this industry and (hopefully) making your lives a little easier in the process! If you missed this year’s event, the recordings are ready and waiting for you. You’ll also want to be sure to follow the Enrollment Insights blog and podcast for more school marketing goodness to get you to the finish line this year and help you prepare for the next!

Wearing too many hats?
Angela is the Manager, B2B Brand Strategy at Niche, where she supports content and partner engagement strategy in Niche's work with K-12 and higher education institutions. Before joining Niche, she was the director of marketing and communications at Flint Hill School, a PK-12, co-ed day school outside of Washington, DC. In addition to developing research and content for Enrollment Insights, Angela is a frequent conference presenter, guest author, and podcast guest.